How the Madison and the Twist “Crossed Over” October 5, 2007Posted by wallofsound in Popular Dance, Rock 'n' Roll.
The concept of “crossover” describes the economic exploitation of a cultural phenomenon, and describes the sales success of a product aimed at one market being reproduced in another. The stories of the Madison and the Twist offer telling insights into the way that these cultural and economic processes relate. The records associated with both dances reveal the cultural crossover from black adult juke joint, via black teenage disc hops, to white high schools. Ray Bryant’s “Madison Time” was an unlikely teen dance record. Bryant led a jazz piano trio playing hard bop, a music with a strong blues and gospel styling that was then a staple of the black community bar jukeboxes and radio playlists. Checker’s “The Twist,” by contrast, is a sweetened cover of an earlier dance R&B record, recorded and promoted with white teenagers centrally in mind.
The origins of the Madison in black culture, though, go back well before the recording of Bryant’s record in March 1959 in New York. Dance historian Lance Benishek suggests that the Madison started in Chicago in the late 1950s; Pruter indicates the dance was associated in the midwest with a completely different recording. Benishek also claims that it was danced in Cleveland after the Baltimore Colts brought it to Baltimore in 1959. Bryant’s record was clearly adopted for a pre-existing dance within black youth culture, and then picked up within the black entertainment world. This also explains how a hard bop instrumental became a black teen dance record with a vocal, and the reasons it gained novelty status in white teenage culture. Sometime between Bryant’s recording and its play on The Buddy Deane Show, a spoken narration was over-dubbed. This narration was provided by radio DJ Eddie Morrison, whose early 1960s afternoon show on WEBB Baltimore mixed jazz and R&B records with slick raps.
Like most radio DJs of the time Morrison would have also hosted record hops where he would have picked up on the popularity of Bryant’s record and seen how young dancers developed dance moves to fit. He could have easily started calling some of the dance actions executed at these hops on his show. The pace and funk swing of “Madison Time” is certainly ideal for Morrison’s DJ style, which was characteristic of black radio talk of the 1960s. For black dancers it asserted a common culture; to white teenagers his adjectives “wild,” “crazy,” “looking good,” and the abstract verb “hit it” would be as exotic as the musical sounds. Morrison’s lyrics also reference the contemporary television westerns, variety shows, and spectator sports, which were common cultural reference for both black and white teenagers. These cultural resonances were clearly understood in the wider entertainment world because sometime in 1960 Bryant’s recording was licensed by Columbia and, with added talk over, was released as a single aimed at white teenagers. The novelty of the dance and the record, and its local popularity, brought it to the attention of the producers of The Buddy Deane Show and then to other such dance shows across the country. Thus, it reached a broader range of local white dancers.
The crossover of the Twist follows a similar path from black dance culture, but the details of its progress reveal other interesting aspects of the crossover. Most accounts emphasize the manipulations of American Bandstand host Dick Clark who supposedly picked up on the popularity of the dance and its associated record by Hank Ballard and the Moonlighters, among Philadelphia youth. He worked with the Cameo Parkway record label (responsible for helping promote some of the key teen idols of late 1950s) to create a watered down cover record by Chubby Checker, which Clark then hyped into national and international success. The Twist was certainly one of the few fad dances that was taken up beyond teen pop in the U.S. and Europe, and its presentation reflected the novelty status of the Mambo a decade before. However, the central historical implication is probably to be found in the difference between two independent record companies trying to exploit the new bi-racial pop.
The original version of “The Twist” was released by Federal Records using its well-tried strategy for success in the R&B market: combine a dance B-side with a ballad A-side. The record charted in the R&B listings in 1958, and the dance B-side was widely danced to at black record hops during the late 1950s. It did not come to the attention of Dick Clark until early 1960. Chubby Checker’s recording is plainly built on crude commercial opportunism to sell to white youngsters. The artist’s stage name was an adaptation of Fats Domino, and the cover smoothed the gospel vocal recasting the R&B track as a classic piece of bi-racial pop. The Cameo Parkway staff understood the importance of dance culture and television to the youth market in the way Federal, with its roots in an earlier generation of R&B, did not. Cameo, and its more black-orientated Parkway subsidiary, released a whole slew of dance records after 1960–including variations on “The Twist” by Checker and, more notably, Dee De Sharp’s “Mashed Potato” and The Orlons’s “Wah Watusi,” which were to become the staple of black dance in the early 1960s.
White youngsters were clearly attracted to the music and dance of African American culture, and black radio and record companies were clearly adapting to a new youth audience. Television, in its pursuit of a white middle class audience, continued the processes of cultural dissemination that radio had begun. But now white youngsters could both hear black music and see the associated dances. However important though, the meanings of these dances are not to be found primarily in this economic and cultural context but in the movements of the dances, in the new senses of dance competence they worked with, and in their status as fads.